“Drawn to the truth” / The Oregonian / Inara Verzemnieks

Drawn to the truth

Joe Sacco proves that a cartoonist can deal with war in Bosnia and the Middle East with a clear eye and a steady hand

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Oregonian

Joe Sacco would rather meet at night, after he's put in a few good hours of work. The fewer distractions he has during the day, the better. He jokes that sometimes he wonders whether he should physically chain himself to his desk.

He's already two years into his latest book, with only, oh, two, three years to go . . . So, he'd rather not meet for coffee, if that's OK. He'd much rather meet for a drink. A real drink. Preferably Jameson's neat, with a hardpack of Silk Cuts -- "I don't smoke, except for Silk Cuts" -- on hand. You can't get them in the States anymore, so he picks some up whenever he travels. (Thank you, Duty Free.)

He travels a lot. Iraq. The Gaza Strip. Ingushetia. Bosnia.

There's a part of him that's "a little restless," he admits. But he also knows that he works better when he's settled.

And so, here he is in Portland, trying to stay put. Trying to minimize the distractions. Because a lot of people are looking forward to what Joe Sacco does next.

Some people refer to Sacco as the pioneer of a form called comics journalism -- painstaking, on-the-ground reporting, rendered in comic book form. Through the years, he has taken on the first intefadeh as seen through the eyes of Palestinians. He has told the stories of Muslims and Serbs coming to terms with the horrors of war in the Balkans.

And the accolades piled up. Enough for 20 book jackets. "The moral draughtsman," wrote Christopher Hitchens. . . . "The best dramatic evocation of the Bosnian catastrophe," wrote David Rieff in The New York Times. . . . "Sacco is formidably talented," wrote the Independent.

At one point, Sacco joked to me that he thought he might be one of the most written-about cartoonists around. I told him I didn't think it was a joke; I had slogged through hundreds of pages of reviews and interviews devoted to his work.

Now, for his latest book, Sacco, 45, has returned to the Gaza Strip, to the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah, not only to describe what life is like there today, but also to re-create a single traumatic event that happened one day in 1956 that resonates still.

"I'm taking one of thousands of incidents that are lost in our history," he says, between sips of Jameson's, one night, sitting in a dimly lit booth at the back of the Space Room in Southeast Portland, not far from his home. "It's a way of spotlighting that; it's a way of saying, 'Look at this thing that you read one line about in a book, yet it has a huge effect on people's lives.' "

He doesn't want to say too much more than that about the book, not because he's trying to be coy, I decide, watching him through a parenthesis of smoke, but because he's still trying to sort it all out in his head, because he likes to speak very precisely about things. His thoughts tend to spill out in complete sentences, no ums or pauses, ever, and this is still a little unwieldy for him.

To call Sacco meticulous would be an understatement.

He seems to favor natty blazers paired with jeans as a kind of uniform. His work area, which he assured me was a hopeless mess, is in fact, an incredibly ordered space, full of perfectly aligned reference books and CDs. The only obvious disorder is a small tangle of papers off to one side of his desk. Files of photographs taken of the places he has visited and people he has interviewed sit nearby, carefully grouped under headings such as "Market Place Rafah" and cross-referenced against pages of notes and interview transcripts, which are filed in plastic containers beneath his desk. An illustrated book called "The Israeli Army in the Middle East Wars -- 1948 to 1973" lies near the window.

On one wall hangs a framed print of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Triumph of Death," a densely structured allegory of the horrors of war, in which nearly every square inch of the canvas tells a story of its own. "I like work that's heavily detailed," Sacco said.

His own work, in fact, is so scrupulously detailed that other cartoonists I spoke to remarked on it. In an industry known for being labor-intensive, Sacco's methods stand out.

"Joe is almost fanatical about the way he draws," said cartoonist Jessica Abel, who created the comic "Artbabe," and who has done comics journalism work herself (though compared to Sacco, "what I do is fluffy," she quickly pointed out). "All that hatching!"

Craig Thompson, author of the 592-page graphic novel "Blankets," and a good friend of Sacco's, told me he once heard Sacco say that when he draws crowds of people, he cannot bring himself to draw a generic face on anyone. So he takes the time to give each person a unique expression, "which is a bit insane at times," Thompson said good-naturedly, and he laughed.

Sacco's books, which have ranged from a little more than 100 to nearly 300 pages, generally take a few months to report and several years to draw. His goal is to complete two pages every five days.

There have been times when he thought about altering his style, Sacco said, specifically because it is so labor-intensive, but then he realized, "That's what comes out of my hand."

Sacco was born in Malta but moved with his family to Australia when he was still a baby.

This seems like a good place to turn some of the story over to him:

In Australia, Sacco's parents formed friendships with other European immigrants, many of whom had lived through World War II, and they often shared stories of their experiences whenever they got together. "It was always in the air," Sacco said. "It was sort of a common currency. The idea of war, of conflict wasn't that distant for me. It didn't feel like something that couldn't happen. Just listening to those stories got me interested in people's stories, in a way."

When Sacco was 11, the family moved to the U.S., eventually settling in Oregon. Sacco, who attended Sunset High School, had been drawing since he was about 6. "It was never drawing for drawing's sake," he said. "I always wanted a story attached." But he didn't think of it as a career.

In fact, he took a journalism class in high school, and "it was love at first paragraph," he said. He went on to study journalism at the University of Oregon and had visions of one day working for a major daily newspaper, perhaps as an overseas correspondent. But after graduation, he found that jobs were hard to come by, and after a series of unsatisfying reporting experiences, including a stint with the journal of the National Notary Association, he basically gave up the idea.

He never stopped drawing comics, however, and eventually began to look for ways to publish his work. It was slow going, but gradually, through trial and error and lots of rejections, Sacco said, he began to figure out what worked and started to make "a weak living."

Much of his early work consisted of humor pieces and autobiographical stories. Cartoonist Peter Bagge, a friend of Sacco's for the past 20 years, told me that said he misses Sacco's more humorous work. People tend to think Sacco is deadly serious given what he writes about now, Bagge said, but "he's a really funny guy. He has an incredibly irreverent sense of humor. . . . He's actually alarmed friends and family of mine because he was so wacky. . . ." (Don't worry, I won't tell them about Bagge's daughter's Spice Girls dolls, Joe.)

Some of the articles that have been written about Sacco make his decision to combine journalism and comics sound like some sort of epiphany, a revelation that came out of the blue, but in truth, if you look at Sacco's work over time, it's clear that he had been working around the edges of the idea of how to incorporate the tenets of journalistic storytelling into the comics form for quite a while.

In one early comic book, Sacco chronicled his adventures on tour with a rock band, complete with direct quotes that he had scribbled down. In another, he reconstructed his mother's experiences on Malta during World War II, based on interviews he had conducted with her.

The big shift, though, came in 1991, when, while living in Berlin, Sacco decided to visit the Middle East to see for himself what life was like for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and then create a comic based on his experiences.

He scraped together $1,500 and spent two months there, taking notes, traveling, lingering in people's homes. He left only because he ran out of money. The resulting work, "Palestine," went on to win the American Book Award.

Something had clicked for Sacco.

Two weeks after he finished "Palestine," he was off to Bosnia.

One of the things that's so interesting about Sacco's work is the way he uses all the traditional tools of a reporter -- he takes copious notes, records interviews, keeps journals in the field that number in the hundreds of pages, snaps photographs and visits national libraries and archives for visual references -- to produce something that looks so unlike traditional journalism.

Something that comes up a lot in discussions of Sacco's work is how cinematic it feels.

"He can make you feel like you're moving through it, almost like a film," says cartoonist Abel. But unlike film, Sacco's work allows you to stop and linger, to live in each panel if you choose.

Like this page:

There's an immediacy, an intimacy to the work that also seems to come from the subjects that Sacco chooses for his stories. He tends to focus on ordinary people, and how they try to get on with their everyday lives despite the chaos around them, not on spokesmen or military officials. There are lots of scenes of people sitting on couches, talking, drinking coffee or tea, often carrying on about nothing that has to do with war. Girls pining over a pair of Levi's, young people flirting. It's the kind of mundane detail that likely wouldn't merit a line in a traditional daily news story, but it's what makes the horrors that come all the more real and terrible. Real horror always erupts against a backdrop of the banal.

Sacco had told me that he really likes to hang out in bars and cafes, "places where you can get something cheap to eat and drink," partly because that's where he could afford to go, and partly because, he says, "That's who I am. . . . You tend to meet a certain kind of person in those places -- people without power. They make up the majority of people who are run over by history."

While other journalists are holed up in the Holiday Inn, he's staying in people's homes, sleeping on their couches, sharing their meals. On one of his trips to Rafah, he rented a home in the refugee camp and lived there for two months.

And while Sacco is respectful of his subjects, he's never fawning. The faces in his books are unflinchingly drawn, with dark circles under their eyes, premature wrinkles, snaggled teeth, lank hair, paunchy bellies. Sacco told me once that the only movie that really inspired him visually was Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," which he saw in high school.

"It was the close-ups," he said. "The focus on the ugliest features of a face, the way people sweat -- everything was grimy," and the influence is obvious in his work. "I doubt I could draw a really beautiful woman," he said. "I'm hopeless that way."

Sacco's subjects are sympathetically human, but never saintly. In "Palestine," he doesn't back away from presenting Palestinians spouting anti-Semitic comments. He doesn't romanticize.

Sacco doesn't take himself out of his stories, either. He is part of the narrative, there in the frames, exposing himself as human, too. ("So, what do you do around here for fun?" he asks a young woman from Gorazde, Bosnia, as an icebreaker." I don't have fun," she says. "OK! Scratch that opening!" Sacco writes.)

It's an interesting technique, the journalistic version of showing the math: letting readers know just who is telling the story, where he's coming from, what he's thinking and feeling, how the story is affecting him, how he affects the story. And in that way, Sacco's work seems to come a bit closer to the truth than an account told from a detached, omniscient point of view, one that washes out all sense of the storyteller.

That's the larger philosophical question hanging over any journalist's work, and one that reporters, particularly features writers, spend a great deal of time thinking about: How best to represent reality, when in the end it's your version of reality? It's a tricky thing. No matter how you assemble the facts, no matter what tone you choose, no matter the lengths you go to take yourself out of a story, you're still there. Everything, after all, is still being filtered through you.

Newspaper journalists, for the most part, have tried to resolve all this by simply not addressing it, by pretending they aren't there, at least in their writing. But the question still lingers.

What's interesting about Sacco's work is that he's come up with a creative visual solution that addresses all these issues, simply and directly, in a way that words can't. By drawing himself into his stories, Sacco is "revealing to the reader this is one person's interpretation of the events," he says. "The reader's seeing it through my eyes. A person can look at what I'm saying and judge whether he or she believes in my account, and they also can get a sense of my political leanings, which I think are pretty obvious if you read my work."

Sacco doesn't have much use for what he calls "standard American objective journalism," and he is unapologetic about taking a point of view in his work. (When I brought up that some people have criticized "Palestine" for not examining the Israeli point of view equally, that the very idea of telling things from the Palestinian point of view makes some people incredibly angry, he responded simply: "I am covering one side, but I feel I'm being honest and fair. I have every confidence in my work. I have every confidence in my own two eyes. I could care less what they think." )

In a way, Sacco told me, "I ended up being a journalist, accidentally, that I couldn't have been at an American paper."

When he was younger, Sacco said, only a few minutes would pass between the time he woke up, washed his face and got to drawing. For years, he has lived in service to his work.

Eric Reynolds, who works for Fantagraphics Books in Seattle, which has published much of Sacco's work, said that Sacco pursued his first two books of comics journalism "at great expense to his quality of life. . . . He was living below the poverty line, and he did that for 10 years, finding ways to go to these places on zero budget whatsoever."

At first, not many people seemed interested in what he was doing. "Palestine," initially published as a nine-issue comic book, "was one of the worst-selling comic books we've ever published," Reynolds said.

It's hard to imagine what that must have felt like, after devoting years to a project that Sacco obviously cared a great deal about ("I'm not going to pick up and go to every place where a bullet flies," he said. "It's what hits me in the gut"). But Sacco turned right around and did it all over again, scraping up the money to go to Bosnia by selling original artwork from one of his earlier comic books. "I felt compelled," he said.

It wasn't until his account of that trip, "Safe Area Gorazde," was published in 2000, that Sacco's work really began to take off. "Palestine," collected in a single volume a year later, is now in its 12th printing. "It's our second-best-selling book of all-time," Reynolds said.

Time and The New York Times Magazine are among the publications that have tapped Sacco for comics journalism work since then. Not long ago, the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom sent him to Iraq, where he was embedded with American troops.

Up in his work area one night, two partially finished pages from his new book resting on his desk, Sacco said that while he considers himself both a journalist and a cartoonist, "If I had to put something on my tombstone, it would be cartoonist," he said, "because I don't think I'm going to be doing this forever."

He wouldn't mind doing some fictional work, he said. Or nonfiction work that wasn't journalistic.

"I keep telling myself this is the last big book I'm going to do," he said. He looked tired. He had drawn most of the day, but years of work were still looming ahead of him.

Not far from him hung a framed photograph of some children posing on a hillside overlooking a desolate camp in the middle of a vast desert. It was taken outside the Khan Younis refugee camp in 1956, and Sacco found it in the United Nations' archives in Gaza City while doing research for his latest book. He was so struck by it -- the bleakness of the camp, yet how happy the children looked -- he asked them to make a print for him.

Sacco was quiet for a few seconds. Then he said finally, "But I think in a few years, there will be something else that pulls me."

When it was time for me to go, Sacco, who has impeccable manners, made a point to walk me out to the porch. He shook my hand and watched as I walked down to my car in the dark.

As I was about to get in, he yelled from the stairs: "Make me look good!"

And that made me laugh. And he laughed. But there was a flash of vulnerability there, too.

All I could think as I drove home was: I wish I could draw. Because somehow, that image of him, which I still have in my mind, standing on that big porch, all alone, yelling, laughing, (quietly fretting) in the dark, says it so much better than I ever could.

Inara Verzemnieks: 503-221-8201

©2005 The Oregonian

Share on Facebook
Share on Tumblr
Share via Email